SEOUL, Jan. 20 (Reuters) – Fire destroyed part of a slum in South Korea’s capital Seoul on Friday, destroying 60 homes, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing the evacuation of about 500 people.
It took emergency crews five hours to douse the blaze, which broke out before dawn in Guryong Village, a slum across a highway from Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. Officials said no casualties have been reported so far.
Home to about 1,000 people, Guryong is one of the last remaining slums in the capital and has become a symbol of inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Ten helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and troops joined the effort to put out the blaze that officials say razed nearly one in ten of more than 600 homes in Guryong.
“I saw a flash from the kitchen and opened the door, and flames shot out of the houses next door,” said Shin, a 72-year-old woman whose house was completely on fire in the inferno.
“So I knocked on every door in the neighborhood and yelled ‘fire!’ and then dialed 911,” she said, citing only her last name.
Kim Doo-chun, 60, said his family was unaffected by the blaze, but told Reuters the village was in constant danger of disaster, in part because of its cardboard houses and narrow alleys.
“If a fire breaks out in this neighborhood, the whole village could be at risk if we don’t respond quickly. So we’ve been responding together for decades,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The slum has long been prone to fires and floods, and there are many safety and health concerns.
The government had unveiled plans for redevelopment and relocation after a massive fire in late 2014, but those efforts have made little headway amid a decades-long tussle between landowners, residents and authorities.
Municipal authorities for Seoul and Gangnam districts and state-run developers have disagreed on how to compensate private landowners in Guryong and have yet to agree on whether residents, most of whom are squatters, are entitled on government support for relocation and housing.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was made aware of the blaze while in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, ordered every effort to avoid a wider disaster, his spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the still-smoldering village and asked officials to prepare for the relocation of the stricken families.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Edited by Christian Schmollinger, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore
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